Today, I am joining the United Nations call to action to counteract air pollution to commemorate this World Environment Day and #beatpollution. The time has come for clean air to be recognised as a fundamental human right, as well as understanding the harmful impacts of air pollution on Nature.
Across the world, people are exposed to toxic and deadly air every day even although air pollution is almost entirely preventable. To put the air pollution crisis in perspective, over 7 million people worldwide die prematurely as a consequence of toxic and harmful air every year. That is, more than the number of deaths caused by war, murder, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. Moreover, but perhaps less well known, air pollution also harms our natural environment; for example, by decreasing the oxygen supply in our oceans, making it harder for plants to grow and contributing to climate change.
As Governments around the world respond to increasing numbers of legal challenges to uphold our (human) right to clean air – introducing Low Emission Zones and other such long-overdue changes to transport and infrastructure systems – it is also important that we don't forget the untapped potential of more Nature-based solutions in this debate. Reforestation and ecosystem restoration, for example, are equally vital tools in the fight to reduce toxic air and mitigate its adverse effects. On this World Environment Day, that is why I am calling on public authorities and private sector actors to also actively promote Nature-based solutions – such as green roofs, living walls and parks in our towns and cities – in their response to the air quality crisis. And, crucially, for active community engagement in their concept, development and implementation.
Not only do such measures have the added benefit of increasing the amount of green space for us to enjoy while delivering much needed improvements in our air quality, when well designed and implemented they can contribute to other environmental improvements and 'wins'; for example, helping to prevent soil erosion and supporting our biodiversity to thrive. In addition, such activities can incorporate educational benefits that can help to raise awareness of the wider environmental crisis. Such as, for example, promoting understanding of the urgent need to prevent deforestation globally (vital also in the fight against climate change.) By thinking about the changes we make to clean-up our air in this more integrated and Earth-system perspective, we can strive to deliver multiple environmental and health improvements at the same time for people and our planet.
While it is inescapable that many of the actions required to reverse the air pollution crisis do require system-level changes, World Environmental Day is equally an opportunity to recognise the role we – as members of civil society – can each play to reverse the toxic emissions trend. Small changes in our individual consumer habits can add up to significant collective contributions to help reduce air pollution. That is why I’m also challenging friends and colleagues today to pick one of their day-to-day activities and swap it for a more environmentally conscious one – such as cycling to work when possible, even if only for a few days in the week. And not just for today, but throughout the year. You can also help by passing on this message to friends and family, for example by tagging them in social media posts and putting them to the challenge too!
The right to clean air is an issue that should unite everyone to make the required changes in our day-to-day lives and push our Governments to act quicker and more decisively. The good news: these changes are not only possible, but they are now happening. Governments and industry alike should be under no illusions that pressure for real change is only likely to increase as more and more people become aware of the serious negative impacts of toxic and deadly air on our health and planet, particularly in the wake of the dieselgate scandal.
Legal Intern - Environmental Rights & Governance